The laziness of magical realism


At its best, magical realism still sees the “non-European” through paradigms created by Europe. At its worst, it becomes internally inconsistent, a symptom of a larger failure to see the structures that make the world unequal and unstable.

I am afraid there is nothing magical about the lazy writer’s realism, or lack of it. And much of what is considered magical realism today distils a whiff of laziness. For instance, in an acclaimed recent novel, the narrator is faced with a problem: a character who, sometime in the future, needs to understand a conversation in a language he does not know at present. Hey presto, the magic solution: this character is suddenly blessed with the ability to remember entire sound sequences verbatim, so that when he finally learns the language in the far future, he can understand what was uttered in the past.

This is by no means exceptional or extreme. Much of magical realist fiction, especially in recent years, is full of such shortcuts to narratability. It is easy to defend these examples of authoritative laziness by thumping the drums of anti-realism, non-European perspectives or the fantastic. But the fact remains that the best of magical realism (such as Marquez or, for that matter, Rushdie in Midnight’s Children) used to create a world that — as is the case with realistic narratives — established and operated on its own internal logic.

Realism and reality

Fictional realism, unlike what is often implied, is not the photography of “reality”: it is above all a narrative that contains elements standing in a complex mutual relationship, which is internal to their existence in the world of the narrative (and in the world on which the narrative is based). When the salesmen snigger about Denise and the salesgirls plot against her and Mouret, the playboy entrepreneur, resists the idea of marriage, what Zola achieves (in The Ladies’ Paradise) is not just a “realistic” description but a convincing narrative of the relations that construct and hold in place the elements of that narrative. The same can be said of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or George Elliot’s Middlemarch or any novel by Thomas Hardy.

When we move away from such realism — social or psychological — we do not do away with the need to establish the internal logic of the narrative. If anything, we increase and complicate that need. For now, the “magic” has to stand in some sort of relationship to “reality”, and the magical elements themselves have to achieve coherence within the narrative. This takes place even in such superficially incoherent novels as Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

When some recent magical realist novel deviates too easily from the need to establish this narrative tension and internal coherence, it does so only at the cost of art. The blame need not be put on the doors of magical realism, as I have indicated above, but it is true that magical realism offers more temptations in these directions. In some ways, its very genesis as a literary style in modern times indicates this.

Magical realism — as a contemporary literary style and not as “surrealism” or the “magischer realismus” or “neue sachlichkeit” of “post-impressionist” art — can be traced back to discussions of the “baroque” and the “marvellous real” by the great Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier.

Seminal essay

In his seminal essay of 1949, Carpentier devised the term “ lo real maravilloso Americano” to describe what he considered a uniquely American form. This was not just a literary form but a sensibility rooted in the history and existence of America: “What is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvellous real?”, as Carpentier put it, and he had in mind not only the mixture of peoples and languages but also El Dorado.

In this essay and another one published in 1975, Carpentier had much of interest to say about Latin America, the world, literary styles, perceptual paradigms and the nature and importance of creolisation. But, with all its strengths, the 1949 essay (and the perspective that grew out of it) was still the essay of a Latin American returning “home” after years abroad, especially in Europe. In its very perception of America as a mixture of the magical and the real, there was a movement — frankly conceded — from Europe to the rest, from “colonial” myths of purity to “postcolonial” realities of mixing ( mestizaje).

Not a new perspective

One can argue that this perception, though justified as a counter to Eurocentric discourses, was nevertheless defined by the relationship of Europe to itself and to the rest of the world. There is nothing particularly new in a perspective that sees non-Europe as mixed, hybrid, a combination of the real and the magical — though there was (and continues to be in the best of magical realist literature) something new and radical in a celebration of the Creole, the refinement of “impurities” into a literary style of impurity. From way back — ranging from the classical Romans all the way down to the Victorians — many in “Europe” had tended to see non-Europe as hybrid, fragmented, inconsistent, superstitious, impure, contaminating. To narrate Latin America — or, increasingly, Africa and Asia — in magical realist terms might question the primacy of the terms or even the nature of the binarism, but it does not provide a new paradigm of “non-Europe” from a certain Eurocentric perspective, which can be traced back at least to Herodotus.

Today, half a century after Carpentier’s necessary reformation, perhaps “magical realism” as a style lends itself more easily to a certain lazy evasiveness of the relations that construct both realities and the marvellous, both purities and impurities. Perhaps it requires a greater creative effort to see how the mestizaje is part of Europe and how “realism” is a non-European tradition too than to use “magic” — a common Eurocentric tendency — to narrate non-Europe? Can it be that magical realism — in its easy acceptance of a standard European paradigm (regarding the non-European world) — slants writers away from an engagement with the internal relations that not only enable all narratives but also construct “reality” and “magic”? So much so that, finally, in the weaker examples of the sub-genre, magical realist fiction loses its own internal coherence?

Sign of the times

It appears that the best writers who — consciously or not — write magical realist texts avoid this laziness. But the weaker ones succumb to it, more so in an age that has given up working out the relations of a world in which the most heroic efforts to challenge old socio-economic and gender relationships have long been shrugged into complacency. So even as neo-liberalists urge us (in a voice that carries a clear echo of Stalinists) to keep consuming, producing, working, the relations that make for an unequal and unstable world (which already produces more than we need) are left obscured. Perhaps the general slippage in magical realism into a world with no relations, and hence little coherence, is partly a symptom of this larger failure.

Tabish Khair is an Indian scholar based in Denmark. His latest novel, Filming: A Love Story , was published in July 2007.
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